Have We Reached a Tipping Point on the Loss of Seed Biodiversity?

RAFI is very proud to release the findings of the 2014 Summit on Seeds and Breeds for the 21st Century, held in March in Washington, DC. The Summit and Proceedings are the latest in our decades-long work on biodiversity in global seeds and agronomic animal breeds.

To be part of the 2014 Summit on Seeds and Breeds for 21st Century Agriculture was a humbling experience. Academics, farmers and plant breeders are generally a fairly reclusive lot, but the summit and summit proceedings represent normally quiet scientists speaking loudly and clearly about the continuing crisis in crop biodiversity, and the loss of public capacity to develop diverse crop and animal varieties.

The first theme of the summit and proceedings is the importance of crop and animal biodiversity and the capacity for crops and animals to be adapted for local environments and production systems.

Infographic: Seed Loss in the Public Domain
Infographic: Seed Loss in the Public Domain.

Both biodiversity and capacity for adaptation are critical in addressing global climate change, growing population pressure on food production, and the many challenges to our agricultural system yet to come. As Fred Kirschenman wrote, “We sometimes forget that this ‘modern’ agriculture is dependent on a collection of ‘old’ (non-renewable) calories which we are rapidly using up.”

Genetic Uniformity & Importance of Classical Breeding

While broad information about crop genetic diversity is elusive, breeders provided striking examples of growing genetic uniformity. According to corn breeder Major Goodman, “The entire maize economy of the temperate world rests on derivatives of about a half-dozen lines, originating from public materials.”

In recent years, there has been an increasing voice from industry that conventional plant and animal breeding is a “tired runner,” having made its contribution, but now needing to be replaced by newer technologies.

Summit participants rejected this analysis outright and documented the importance of crop diversity, the great potential of conventional plant breeding, and the science behind significant limits for genetic engineering to address complex issues. One study showed the cost of developing seed varieties through transgenic cultivar development is 28 times that of field breeding.

As scientist Margaret Mellon, stated, “Classical plant and animal breeding is the only crop improvement technology that is both powerful enough to generate a plethora of new varieties of plants and animals and cost-effective.”

Seed Industry Consolidation

Summit participants were also clear that diversity and regional adaptation capacity were negatively impacted by corporate concentration and consolidation in the seed industry. The top 10 seed companies control 94% of the global seed market, with just three companies controlling over 50%. This concentration has significant effects on the choices farmers can make.

seed infographic
Infographic: How Seeds Became Privatized.

Henry Ford was famously quoted as saying “You can have any color you want, as long as it’s black.” Global seed conglomerates are increasingly telling farmers, “You can plant any seed you want, as long as it’s ours.” And “ours” means locking farmers into an industrial production model that is heavily dependent on agricultural chemicals, often sold by the same companies, and fossil fuels.

A study by Kathy Jo Wetter and Pat Mooney of the ETC Group documented that the same six seed companies that control 76% of the seed market also control 60% of the agrochemical market. As Adrienne Shelton of the University of Wisconsin – Madison stated, “The largest seed companies spend upwards of $1 billion a year on research to develop new varieties that ensure the continuation of the current industrial model of agriculture.”

The proceedings clearly show that growing privatization and concentration of the seed industry has been matched with an alarming erosion of public plant breeding capacity and the release of public seed varieties. The number of corn breeders in the U.S. that are actively developing and releasing public seed varieties has fallen from 25 in 1985 to 5 today. In six years, the US lost 33% of its public plant breeders as retiring breeders were not replaced and resources were redirected.

Utility patents for seed varieties, designed to spur innovation by assuring a return on seed development investment, have caused a decline in innovation by restricting breeder and farmer ability to share germplasm. The patents are also part of the long-term restriction of the right of farmers to save their own seed. This restriction is a radical departure from history. According to Kristina Hubbard of the Organic Seed Alliance, “Patents are commonly enforced to remove a farmer’s right to save and replant seed, the very practice that helped establish much of the tremendous diversity of domesticated crops and varieties we have today.”

Summit participants pointed to effective new partnerships between breeders, non-governmental organizations, and farmers that are building crop diversity and reinvigorating public plant breeding. If supported, these innovative programs represent a cost-effective way for communities to address food production issues, adapt seed varieties for local conditions or production systems, and increase food security. As stated Margaret Mellon, “To be effective, breeding programs must be integrated into farming systems and communities of farmers. And those systems must be designed to be resilient, environmentally balanced, and sustainable. And they must be economically feasible for farmers to adopt.”

A Wake-Up Call: Immediate Action is Necessary

The 2014 Summit on Seeds and Breeds for 21st Century Agriculture represents a significant “wake-up call,” with specific recommendations for action steps and policy change. The collective voice of these experts clearly shows that we are at a tipping point regarding our global seed heritage and that immediate action is necessary. Nothing less than the survival of our species is at stake.

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